Words Without End : THE MOTHER TONGUE; English and How It Got That Way <i> By Bill Bryson (William Morrow: $18.95; 228 pp.) </i>


Bill Bryson’s last book, “The Facts On File Dictionary of Troublesome Words,” was and is an invaluable contribution to the work of those who work with the language. This one, as the title suggests, is more scholarly in approach but it is more than that. It is a vastly informative and vastly entertaining consideration, not only of the language’s history but also of its position today.

“English is one of the world’s great growth industries,” Bryson says, pointing to such exports as il software to Italy, les refueling stops to France and having a pikunikku to Japan. And this “growth” includes imports: We adopted the French RSVP, leaving them to create a replacement, “Priere de repondre”; most of us know that goodby springs from an older “God be with you,” but few of us are aware that hello comes from a much older hal beo thu: “whole be thou.”

He points out that after the invasion of Norman French, the animals in the fields retained Anglo-Saxon names: sheep, cow, ox ; but that their meat, once brought to the table, was French: boeuf, mutton, veal. And, in a somewhat similar vein, the language retained many Anglo-Saxon nouns but adopted Latinate adjectives: mouth/oral ; book/literary ; son/filial ; sun/solar ; town/urban.

Shakespeare, whose own name has been spelled 90 different ways, coined no fewer than 2,000 words and presented us with phrase after phrase that we use almost daily with no thought of their origin: one fell swoop , bag and baggage , budge an inch , cold comfort , play fast and loose , tower of strength , primrose path and milk of human kindness.


Bryson credits English with “the richest vocabulary, and most diverse shadings of meaning, of any languages,” and he cites house/home , continual/continuous , forceful/forcible and childish/childlike. He goes on to point to a “tendency to load a single word with a whole galaxy of meanings.” The word set, for instance, he credits with “58 uses as a noun, 126 as a verb and 10 as a participial adjective.”

He points, too, to “contranyms,” words that have contradictory meanings: sanction , bolted , wind up and fast.

And there are words with two forms meaning the same thing: flammable/inflammable , iterate/reiterate and ravel/unravel.

Bryson also points to words that appear to have sprung from nowhere without antecedents or precursors: dog , for instance, and bad and fun and jalopy. He includes yuppie , but he is apparently unaware of its relationship with hippie and the initials of young urban professionals.

He cites errors committed by most of the language experts, including Fowler and Robert Burchfield (of the Oxford English Dictionary), and he nails Jimmy Carter on flaunt/flout and George Bush on enormity.

But this veteran newsman with experience in both the United States and Britain can err, too: He argues that “in Britain to table a motion means to put it aside; in America it means to give it priority.” My Webster’s says exactly the opposite: In this country, we set a motion aside when we table it. He maintains, too, that “ presently means ‘now’ in America; in Britain it means ‘in a little while.’ ” American authorities differ on this one, but the respected Theodore Bernstein and others join me in deploring its use to mean “now.”


Am I picking nits? Of course. But overall this is a scholarly and fascinating book. Bryson’s works on the language are the most useful on the contemporary scene.